All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

A Change In Altitude – Anita Shreve

on August 17, 2010

Margaret and Patrick are newlyweds who are spending a year abroad in Kenya. Patrick is a doctor who is undertaking a study in equatorial medicine. In return for using the hospital as a base for his research, he must do free clinics for the locals where they are in Kenya. Margaret is a photojournalist who came to Kenya simply because Patrick did. They consider themselves ‘lucky’ to be able to rent a small cottage on the grounds of a large house occupied Diana, of Brit origin and raised in Kenya, and her husband Arthur, who works for Colgate and Palmolive in Kenya. When the toilet in their cottage breaks down, they move into the ‘Big House’ with Arthur and Diana and it’s there that Patrick has the idea to climb Mt Kenya.

Mt Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya and the highest in Africa after Mt Kilimanjaro. Patrick is extremely enthusiastic about climbing the mountain whereas Margaret has more reservations. She is talked into it though and preparations are made. Joining Patrick, Margaret, Arthur and Diana are a European couple, friends of Arthur and Diana’s but I’m not even entirely sure why they’re there as they don’t lend much to the story at all.

The group undertake a preparatory climb of a nearby, smaller peak and that should’ve been an indication to Margaret that the whole climbing of Mt Kenya wasn’t such a good idea for her. She struggles to keep up with the group and she gets attacked by fire ants. However she doesn’t let this deter her and the 3 couples, plus some porters and a guide, begin the climb. Margaret is in trouble from the beginning, she cannot keep up with the rest of the group and her presence constantly slows them down, irritating Diana. Her husband leaves her behind (a low act, in my opinion) and leaves her vulnerable to Arthur, who is showing signs of an attraction to Margaret. When it’s Arthur that comforts her in one of the huts along the climb overnight after she feels rats running over her, Diana and Patrick are furious when they awake to find Arthur and Margaret holding hands.

To be honest, it was kind of a thin stretch that such an innocent act would rile up two spouses. They’re up a mountain, there were rats running everywhere, her own husband wasn’t sleeping near her, and Margaret was frightened and completely exhausted. She took comfort where she could get it and on the scale of marital betrayals, holding hands with another person doesn’t really rate that high! Diana takes off in high dudgeon though and Patrick is icy towards her, despite the fact that he’s been leaving her behind since the beginning of the climb. When a life is lost due to carelessness, jealousy and anger, Margaret and Patrick’s marriage spirals downwards at a rate of knots.

They are forced to move and find alternative accommodation and Margaret struggles to deal with what happened on the climb. She decides to get a job, to give her something to do and hopefully, help her move on. She takes a job as a freelance photojournalist for a local newspaper. Patrick doesn’t seem to approve of her decision, or of her job and he shows her almost no support at all. He doesn’t help her deal with the aftermath of what occurred on the mountain (even going so far as to tell her once that he blamed her) and he doesn’t make much effort to heal their marriage either. His idea of moving on seems to be forgetting it ever happened or pretending it never happened. He’s buried in his work and makes little time for Margaret, which makes even more puzzling his displeasure in her taking the job.

Margaret is paired with a journalist named Rafiq Hameed, who was chased out of Uganda during the purges in the early 70s. His father is Pakistani, his mother Welsh and he was educated in London. He wants to write challenging articles, meaty kinds that question human rights and the problem of poverty in Kenya. Margaret is impressed and the two develop a deep understanding and friendship. He is someone she can really talk to and she seems to find more comfort in him than she ever did in her husband. They fall in love, of sorts, but it doesn’t go the way you might think. Normally I loathe extra-marital relationships (a personal moral), I never really think there’s a justified excuse for them but in this book, I found it different, maybe because they didn’t actually take that extra step into an an affair. I enjoyed their relationship immensely and more importantly, I could see it. Rafiq as a character was far more interesting, far more believable and far more attractive than Patrick. Rafiq had a realness to him that Shreve didn’t seek to give to Patrick. Most of the time I found Patrick sanctimonious, patronizing and irritating and I couldn’t understand what had made Margaret marry him and then run off to Kenya with him.

***Spoilers***

The differences in Patrick and Rafiq are made glaringly obvious when Margaret suffers a miscarriage. She was unaware that she was pregnant but was still deeply upset. Patrick is vague, unsympathetic, distant and acts like he really couldn’t care less. He says that it was probably a good thing that she lost the baby, as they wouldn’t want to have a baby here and he’s not ready to leave Kenya yet. Rafiq, who by this time, has distanced himself from Margaret because they are aware they’ve crossed into the more-than-professional realm. He visits her in hospital and his visit is so perfect, he provides her with the ear and shoulder that she needs for her grief and confusion. Nothing happens between them, other than him comforting her and staying until she falls asleep but it’s the act of a man who loves her. Which casts her husband into a glaring and very unflattering light.

After the miscarriage and with the loss of Rafiq’s friendship (he has to leave Kenya) Margaret is even more depressed than before. The year of their climb of Mt Kenya is approaching and Patrick suddenly comes up with a wonderful idea. The only way to exercise the demons and move forward is to successfully climb the mountain. Margaret is (once again) apprehensive but she allows herself to be talked into it and they invite another couple, who are also ex-pats, to join them.

This book was a wonderful insight to a country I’m never likely to visit. I think the author portrayed very well how easy it would be to be a fish out of water as an American in such a country. Margaret was totally lost, with nothing to do except wander around and have her car stolen by locals. Once she got the job, she had some focus, she had some direction and she came to care for the country she was living in. She saw the poverty, she heard the stories of violence and suffering like it was for the first time.

Where this book is a let down, was characters. Patrick, Margaret’s husband is such a bland and boring character that it was so hard to even know anything about him and mostly, I couldn’t understand why Margaret bothered to stay with him. Diana and Arthur were cardboard cut-outs of what rich Brits living in Kenya would supposedly be like and the Dutch couple who undertake the climb with them were a total waste of time. Why were they even there? At most all they did was establish a semi-friendship between Diana and Saartje that was not there between Diana and Margaret. Even that friendship lacked any real credibility and warmth.

While I ultimately enjoyed this novel, I think it promised a lot more than it delivered. I expected the tragedy to be played out, not glossed over in a matter of a page. Although Margaret has problems dealing with the aftermath, it seems that Patrick just moves on like nothing happened, even though he was the only who wanted Margaret to undertake the climb. He happily blames her which I felt was an incredibly unfair thing to do. The highlight for me, was the relationship between Margaret and Rafiq. I’d have happily read a whole book on that.

5/10

(Book #52 of my 75 Book Challenge)

This book counts towards my 2010 Global Challenge

The Medium Challenge
Read two novels from each of these continents in the course of 2010:
Africa: #1: A Change In Altitude, by Anita Shreve. Set in Kenya
Asia: #1: The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani. Set in Persia/Iran
Australasia: #1: Vodka Doesn’t Freeze, by Leah Giarratano. Set in Sydney, Australia.
Europe: #1: Cold Granite, by Stuart MacBride. Set in Aberdeen, Scotland.
North America (incl Central America)
South America
Try to find novels from twelve different countries or states.



4 responses to “A Change In Altitude – Anita Shreve

  1. Shannon says:

    Great review Bree!

    You know I’ve never read anything by Anita Shreve – I kinda see her as a somewhat more intelligent, more sophisticated Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks (self-indulgent, in other words) so I’ve never read anything by her. I don’t think I will be, either. It was very interesting, reading about this book here, but it’s not really my kind of book. Still, I’m always curious about her books!

  2. This is actually the first of hers I’ve read, but I have 3 more on my bookshelves and 1 other from the library to read, lol. From other reviews I’ve read of her novels, this is not her best work by far and your description of a Steele or Sparks, but better written, is probably pretty close to the mark in this novel. I’m hoping that the rest I have are much better – I’ve heard spectacular things about The Pilot’s Wife in particular, so I’m hoping that this one was just a bit of a ‘downer’ novel!

    • Shannon says:

      I’m interested to hear your thoughts on The Pilot’s Wife; I’ve been curious about it but I have a radar for sentimental, self-indulgent stories and it goes off every time I look at it – just not sure if it’s justified or not!

  3. Lara Emilie says:

    This book in on my TBR shelf (has been for a little while actually) so I haven’t read all of your review because of the spoilers. I read The pilot’s wife by Anita Shreve which I enjoyed, so I hope this one will live up to my expectations. I also have Rescue, waiting to be read. Have you read it?

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